Featured Artist: Evelyn Mukwedeya

 

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photo credit: Nyembezi Zviuya

 

In a city where we can feast on culturally diverse artistic expression at will, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the music and arts of many cultures were and still are outlawed at home and around the world.  So while I know that Canadian aboriginal ceremonies like the Northwest Coast potlatch and its associated dances and theatre were banned by the government from 1884 to 1951, and that dance is pretty much prohibited in Iran right now, it still came as a bit of a surprise to learn from Evelyn Mukwedeya recently that the mbira had been demonized and suppressed by the colonial power structures in pre-Independence Zimbabwe.

It is fortunate that young people like Evelyn have embraced this beautiful instrument and dedicated themselves to its revival.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Nhapitapi Mbira which includes Evelyn Mukwedeya, Memory Makuri and Mutamba Rainos several times in the past couple of years; it always proves to be a mesmerizing and intriguing experience.  Like many others in Toronto, I was first introduced to the unique music of Zimbabwe through performances by Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi and Stella Chiweshe, all of whom have played at Afrofest at Queen’s Park in Toronto.  And it is thrilling to have our very own ensemble within easy earshot now.

My first personal meeting with the amiable Evelyn Mukwedeya was at Lalibella Ethiopian Restaurant at Bloor and Ossington at a meeting to plan a tribute for a fixture of the African music community in this country who had suddenly passed away, Achilla Orru.   Later Evelyn and I rode home together on the subway and I was struck by Evelyn’s sensitivity, intelligence and easy sense of humour.  By the time we met over tea and hot chocolate at Yonge and Eglinton last month, I knew I was in for a rare treat.

The mbira is a type of ‘thumb piano’ of the Shona people.  It’s made of a small wooden board with 20-24 metal keys affixed which rests in a calabash (hollowed out gourd) resonator. Evelyn plays one of three types of mbira, the traditional mbira dzevadzimu (mbira of the ancestors).  The trance-like music can have spiritual significance, but can also be regarded as just pure entertainment.

As we discussed her mbira journey, she was quick to disclose that she did not grow up surrounded by traditional music of her country.  In fact, it was not until after several years of study in classical European music by way of the clarinet, piano and lots of theory at the Mutare School of Music that she began to take a serious interest in traditional Zimbabwean music, and the mbira in particular.  She did this at the suggestion of her mother and an open-minded administrator at the music school.  She says “If it were not for my mother, I wouldn’t have picked up mbira!” Again, in my naivety I would have expected otherwise, and I asked Evelyn for her opinion as to why this wonderful music was not, in fact, as much of an integral part of life in Zimbabwe as we might hope.

She says “We have to go back to colonial times, when the Christian missionaries arrived in Zimbabwe, they saw mbira as an evil instrument because of its role in spiritual ceremonies.  With Christianity there was the thinking that traditional ceremonies were not godly.  That mentality runs deep. At times, people had to play mbira in secret, and some went to the extreme of burying them just so they could keep them!”

With the colonial powers also attacking traditional culture by suppressing mbira playing and the spiritual ceremonies at which it would be played, many came to believe they should not play or listen to mbira it as it was part of the non-Christian way of life.  This was one of the ways they used to weaken and subdue the Shona.

Evelyn goes on to say “It took the likes of Stella Chiweshe to later play and record mbira and say ‘no, this is part of our culture, it’s not just about spiritual ceremonies.  It carries a universal message of healing and wisdom.  It is also entertaining.  We should be proud of it as a culture.’ And so as a people I think we are still recovering from that way of thinking.”

From 2004, Evelyn started to learn mbira from two different teachers in her hometown of Mutare, absorbing everything she could about this polyphonic and polyrhythmic music she was becoming more and more passionate about.  She wanted to know all about the meanings and origins of each song, and found them musically fascinating and welcomed the opportunity for improvisation.  As she says, “With classical music, you have a sheet of music and you know that ‘thou shalt not deviate’ from the notes and directions on that sheet.” And she felt fortunate that as a woman she was able to play mbira for this had been uncommon traditionally.

In late 2004, Evelyn’s life was to take a dramatic turn.  Her father had moved to Canada years earlier, settled into a new life and then started the lengthy process of bringing the rest of family over to join him. Evelyn’s parents had made the difficult decision to leave Zimbabwe in an effort to ensure that their children would get a good education with good future prospects.  Evelyn recalls those seemingly endless years, “Three years doesn’t sound that long, but when you are on the other side, you are living your life waiting.  Finally, once we had already told ourselves that it wasn’t going to happen, it happened!”  They got the call and everything moved very quickly from that point on.  In spite of the fact that they had to pack their bags, and say their goodbyes so quickly, Evelyn managed to bring her  mbiras along, not knowing if she would be able to make good use of them once in Canada.

But what to do career-wise?  She loved music, it was true, but sensing that it would be challenging to make a living at it, Evelyn opted to follow her other love, science at school.  After completing high school, she entered the University of Toronto’s biomedical engineering program and quickly established herself academically and as a leader and role model for young women.

Throughout her university studies and now well into her career, music is never far from Evelyn’s consciousness.  She discovered it was very easy to find a piano teacher, and a clarinet teacher, but mbira? That was a whole different matter.   Over her first years in Toronto, she spent hours at the Toronto Reference Library listening to their mbira cd collection, carefully taking notes, reproducing the sounds back at home, but soon needed more. A Google search yielded an American connection, which lifted her spirits temporarily, but she sought like-minded souls a bit closer to home.  Finally, in 2007, she got a break at Toronto’s own Afrofest, the largest African music festival in North America. A chance meeting at a workshop with Nuno Cristo, a Portuguese-Canadian with a fascination for African musical instruments eventually led to meeting and joining fellow Zimbabweans Memory Makuri and Mutamba Rainos and forming Nhapitapi Mbira.

Since 2008 Nhapitapi has performed extensively and recently they released their first demo.  The three have a special kind of chemistry, learning from one another every day, resolved to keeping their cultural traditions alive.  Evelyn’s performance highlights over the past six years include sharing the stage with two of her idols, Thomas Mapfumo and Stella Chiweshe.  These were experiences she never imagined in those early days back in Zimbabwe.  Most recently Nhapitapi were honoured to play at Toronto’s Koerner Hall following the performance by Fatoumata Diawara & Bassekou Kouyate Fatoumata Diawara & Bassekou KouyateFatoumata Diawara and Bassekou Kouyate.  Another special night for Evelyn and Memory was participating in Batuki Music’s Songs of My Mother show which featured a remarkable group of young women from various parts of Africa.  This collaboration excited Evelyn greatly and she beamed onstage as her mother looked on proudly from the audience.

Last year Nhapitapi participated in Zimfest 2013 in Tacoma, Washington and Nhemamusasa North in British Columbia.  Both festivals focus on workshops as well as performances of Zimbabwean music, with both Zimbabwean and non-Zimbabwean teachers and performers. Evelyn was impressed with the number of North Americans who have taken up the music with great respect and passion.  She enjoys teaching anyone of any background who appreciates the value of the music and culture.  But she does not deny that she would like to see many more Zimbabweans taking it upon themselves to learn their traditional music. “I would love that!” she exclaims.  She laments that there is still an under-appreciation of mbira music among Zimbabweans. Throwing off the shackles of colonialism is apparently easier said than done.

Back home in Zimbabwe, with the help of the Zimbabwe College of Music and various music organizations and schools, attempts have been made to reclaim traditional music and bring it to school music programs.  This is not without challenges.  For example, it can be difficult to source the instruments themselves and find good teachers, as Evelyn says, “Not just people who can play, but people who can teach!”  But she is hopeful that this will improve over time.   “We are reclaiming mbira as something worth learning and worth keeping alive within the culture.”

She made a trip back to her homeland in 2011, and says “It was nice to go back, but I had this picture in my mind of what it was like when I left.  I realized it had changed, and I had changed.  Zimbabwe is my home, and I’m also Canadian.”

Evelyn is inspired by Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiweshe and Mbira DzeNaharira and recommends recordings by any of them.  She also recommends her main resources The Soul of Mbira book and cd (available at Toronto Reference Library).

To learn more about the history of mbira in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, keep your eyes open for a new book by Mhoze Chikowero called African Music, Power and Being, Colonial Zimbabwe.  Read about it here  http://www.afropop.org/wp/6938/mhoze-chikowero-a-historians-take-on-thomas-mapfumo-and-robert-mugabe/

Evelyn and her Nhapitapi Mbira bandmate Memory Makuri will perform at the Wavelength Festival in Toronto on Feb. 15, 2014. http://www.wavelengthtoronto.com/wavelog/2013/12/wavelength-music-festival-fourteen

You can find out more information about Nhapitapi Mbira here:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Nhapitapi/138155876245766

or via email at nhapitapimbira@gmail.com

 

 

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